With North Korea in the news again thanks to a controversial scene in a film called “The Interview” depicting the assassination of the country’s leader, now is a great time to brush up on the history of the country. These 10 books offer a rare glimpse into the isolated and oppressive North Korean regime, and into the daily lives of the people who call it home.
1. Church, James – A Corpse in the Koryo
James Church is the pseudonym of a Western intelligence officer who worked in Asia for many years, and A Corpse in the Koryo is the first in a series of novels about a North Korean security officer called Inspector O, who finds both his job and his life at risk when he is caught between rival intelligence agencies.
2. Demick, Barbara – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
An award-winning and enthralling account of the lives of six North Korean defectors, covering a tumultuous time in the country’s history that included a devastating famine that killed about 1/5 of the population and the death of Kim Il-sung, the first leader of North Korea.
3. Harden, Blaine – Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
A gripping and hard-to-put-down account of the life of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person ever known to escape North Korea’s brutal prison camps. Shin was born and raised in the camps and saw classmates beaten to death, his own mother’s execution, and many other horrors before his incredible escape.
4. Jenkins, Charles Robert – The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea
A unique perspective on life inside North Korea from a US Army Sergeant who deserted from his post in South Korea rather than be sent to Vietnam and escaped to North Korea. He quickly realized his mistake, but was held in the country for forty years before being released.
5. Johnson, Adam – The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel
A Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that offers a remarkably vivid portrait of many different facets of North Korean life, from its elite to its prisoners.
6. Kang, Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot – The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
Kang and his family were imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp for ten years, starting when Kang was just 9 years old. He was eventually released, and managed to defect to South Korea, where he lives today. His horrifying memoir recounts beatings, torture, near starvation, and more.
7. Kim, Suki – Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
An interesting memoir by a (South) Korean-American woman who spent six months teaching ESL at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, whose 270 male students are mostly sons of North Korea’s political elite.
8. Martin, Bradley – Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
The most comprehensive history to date of the North Korean regime and its ruling family, written by a journalist who has been covering the country since 1977.
9. Myers, B.R. – The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters
A fascinating examination of North Korea’s internal propaganda machine and how it affects the individual and national self-image of the North Korean people and their leaders.
10. Oberdorfer, Don – The Two Koreas
An excellent and informative history of modern Korea – North and South – and its complicated relationships with the US and USSR/Russia in particular.
What is your favorite book about North Korea?
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